Flavor: Creature comforts and community
Ambiance: Funky and cozy
The Bodega Community Market on Lexington Avenue is not your average “corner store.” For starters, even though that’s precisely what its owner, Wells Lowery, calls it, it’s not on a corner. And when this particular shopkeeper looks you in the eye and tells you that his business isn’t necessarily about the money, you tend to believe him.
When Lowery, 32, was younger, he tried his hand at several “natural, back-to-basics types of jobs,” he says. He worked at co-ops, sprout farms and organic bakeries, but none of them stuck. Finding a place where he felt like he could be himself “without any cliquey-ness or judgment” proved to be difficult. After experiences with strict health-food store regulations barring piercings, dreadlocks and other elements of external freakiness, he became bound and determined to build a better grocery store – one that’s “less homogenized.”
“Then I went to Jamaica and saw all these tiny shanty shacks – little tiny stores that had maybe a bunch of bananas and a chess board, and they’d grill you up some barbeque or something, and that was it. I thought, ‘Wow, these guys are poor, but they want to make it work, and they’ve got their own thing going.'”
The atmosphere of so much lively, community-oriented business struck a chord, reminding Lowery of the small gas station that his second cousin kept in the middle of nowhere. “He would go there every morning, and sit around with all the local guys, tell jokes and talk politics and news,” Lowery recalls. “I’ve always loved that vibe of a corner store – your old school corner store.”
So, back in Asheville and full of inspiration, Lowery took a business course and secured a loan. In July 2004, he opened the Bodega, a funky, brightly painted, 500-square-foot shop with an unflinchingly bohemian bent. His dream of running a different sort of store seemed to be becoming a reality – but then a major competitor set up shop not far away.
“At first, the Bodega was a corner market/grocery store with some convenience foods but mostly health food and fresh produce, and then Greenlife opened,” Lowery says. The new grocery store cut into his business, he says, as downtowners began journeying the extra half-mile to secure all of their goods in one spot.
“I had to either fight or flee, in a way,” Lowery recalls. “I decided to adapt, like Muddy Mudskipper would do.”
So, he pulled most of the products that were suddenly being passed over, and the Bodega began to focus on convenience items for creatures of habit. These days, the store sells a good deal of beer and wine (about 80 percent of sales), tobacco and snacks, and even offers movie rentals.
“All of us humans like to do things in repetition,” the store owner says, lifting a Wolaver’s organic ale for emphasis. “Smoke cigarettes, drink beer, watch movies. I want to get people in the local community knowing that they have something they can depend on for convenient, necessary things.”
Locals, Lowery points out, are decidedly the Bodega’s bread and butter. Tourists come in occasionally, he says, but “the people that actually live and work here support the place” first and foremost. “The people that are out Christmas shopping at Tops for Shoes are not the same people that come in and pay my bills. It’s one thing to rely on a tourist economy, but it’s another thing to rely on your local economy, and I think that’s a more important thing. It may be harder to do because it takes more want and willpower and tweaking of everything that you do, but it also has more soul, more integrity, and I feel better at the end of the day going to sleep knowing that.”
To prove where his loyalty lies, Lowery orchestrates events that cater primarily to locals, like the “Sunday Sauce Parties,” which he conjured up to battle downtown’s Sunday-night doldrums. Around 8 p.m., the speakers are turned up, the turntables that rest near the front of the business see some action, and folks are invited to “come get saucy at the Bodega,” as he puts it. “It’s really informal – never big. It’s just a chance for people to get out and do something on a Sunday.”
You can, in fact, drink beer and wine on the premises. More interesting, perhaps, is the fact that the Bodega keeps its beer prices competitive with larger grocery stores. So, not only can you go polish off a six-pack with a couple of friends in the store, you pay nearly the same amount as you would at Ingles. Try that in any bar downtown.
In addition to the booze, the Bodega offers a variety of treats brought in by local caterers. I recently sampled a tempeh and fried green tomato sandwich with chipotle mayo made by Sassagrass Kitchen, chocolate/mint truffles by Nikka, some organic brownies, pineapple muffins, a slice of pizza, and some extremely fiery salsa – and all were quite good.
The store’s inventory doesn’t stop there, however; quirky gift items like fuzzy dice and Ganesh lunchboxes share space with such necessities as toilet paper and truffles.
With his unconventional, flexible approach, Lowery thinks he’s got the right mix for keeping up with the changing face of Lexington, where development and gentrification pose a threat to funky little businesses of many stripes.
“A lot of people – with all the new condos sprouting up and with all the new business opportunities – are ready to make everything so shiny and pretty,” he notes. “People come to this town for eclectic-ness and for weirdness and for novelty, and I kind of encompass that all in one little store.”